Drawings by Ria Brodell
FOOD FACES: MELISSA BRODER
In this series, Shane Jones looks at the diet of some of our favorite writers. In this installment he talks to Melissa Broder, whose most recent book is Scarecrone.
I. THE DESIRE TO FILL INSATIABLE HOLES
THE BELIEVER: I’ve been staring at what you eat for a while now and it seems extremely conscious of calories. Are you “counting” what you put in your body? I imagine numbers entering your system.
MELISSA BRODER: Yes. I am eating numbers. And I prefer packaged foods, foods with a bar code, because they make the math simpler and that gives me a sense of peace. Maybe not peace exactly, but an illusion of control—a stillness in my mind—which lends itself to feeling safe.
BLVR: But you’re eating a lot of processed foods that give an illusion of health (Subway, Lean Cuisine, protein bars, Starbucks, Coke Zero). You’re not on some raw organic shit; rather, it’s more about just getting stuff in your body and moving forward while controlling the calories. Health seems secondary. I just thought of this line I really love, from your new book of poems, SCARECRONE: “Dinner is cardboard.”
MB: Right, I didn’t say health. I would not call myself a healthy eater. I am a vanity eater, a machinelike-eater, a suppresser-of-feels-eater. I save the bulk of my calories for the end of the day so that I have something sweet and seemingly unlimited to look forward to. I am an eater who doesn’t trust herself, a bad mommy to myself, a poor steward of my body, an eater of rituals and a ritualistic eater, an eater who knows better but sees no impetus to get better because this kind of works and I like how my body looks at this weight. I am a terrible feminist probably, but a good one in some ways, maybe. I am an eater who is playing a game that mostly exists in my head but has also been curated by various social cues, including my mother (who is probably Jesus in the poem you are referring to in which the speaker is fed cardboard and Jesus is a man). I am an eater who knows that ultimately you are responsible for yourself, an eater who doesn’t want to take responsibility for herself other than to feel safe, a very superficial woman of depth, a disordered eater, and an eater who is scared to be so honest here.
BLVR: Do you eat while you write poems? Have you ever, like the opening poem in SCARECRONE reads, “…sorted all-beef knockwurst / in bags of sauerkraut” while writing?
MB: Not really. But I am always chewing nicotine gum. Even when kissing or sleeping, I usually have a piece lodged somewhere in my mouth, so it’s safe to say that every poem I’ve written over the past ten years (the duration of time I’ve been chewing the gum) is sponsored by Nicorette.
In terms of the intersection between my work and my eating habits, though, there is a lot of overlap. Many of my poems contend with feelings of bottomless hunger, or lust, and fear of that hunger. The desire to fill insatiable holes. Also, a lack of trust that the universe will provide enough. That’s the case with my consumption of a whole pint of Arctic Zero with six packets of Equal or Stevia in it every single night (Arctic Zero is a very low-cal frozen dessert and not super sweet on its own). It’s a way of offering myself something cloyingly saccharine and seemingly infinite. I still don’t trust that the world, or god, will give me that sweetness. So I am giving it to myself. I am going to bed full of sweetness that the day may not have provided. And I am defeating the laws of nature by not doing this with, like, Ben & Jerry’s, because a whole pint of Arctic Zero isn’t going to make me fat. And most nights I would rather curl up with the Arctic Zero than be in the world.
BLVR: What’s your definition of fat, and are you scared to reach that weight?
MB: It’s funny, because I hold myself to a completely different standard than I do others. Like, I really love a zaftig female body. The women I am most sexually attracted to are considered obese by today’s (and yesterday’s) standards. I don’t watch a lot of porn, but a typical search term for me is “fat lesbians.” That is a beautiful fantasy. To be accepted and embraced and adored as your biggest self, the most you. That, to me, is freedom. The ultimate letting go. It’s sexy as fuck. It really turns me on. And it’s a freedom I cannot allow myself, for whatever reason. In terms of my own body, I feel safest at a place of very thin. Like, in a body that is so far away from being fat that it has room to gain weight and still not even rub elbows with chubbiness. Fat for me, in terms of my own body, represents terrible feelings: shame, disintegration, self-hatred. These are feelings that I experienced as a child and want to protect myself from feeling ever again (though that is, of course, impossible and I feel them every day in whatever body I have).
BLVR: So is writing a book like SCARECRONE a way to feel safe? There’s a feeling of control and safety in how you eat, the numbers, the calories, so I’m thinking the act of writing is similar? Control the words, fill up your holes with words, hide and feel safe in the words. It’s a kind of worship.
MB: Writing poems is a positive way of filling holes. It is grace. It is the alchemy of darkness and light—for me, anyway. I’ve been writing poems since I was eight, when I wrote my first poem and enjoyed writing the poem and received positive reinforcement for it. To receive positive reinforcement for something you truly enjoy doing is rare. So I kept doing it. Sometimes I still chase that reinforcement in terms of acclaim or attention or internet likes, and all that. Like, I can use that dopamine release of a favorite or a retweet or a positive review to fill the holes too. That’s my gummy peaches and white chocolate nonpareils and gummy coke bottles. It’s way shorter-lived and far less organically satisfying than the act of making the art, but I crave it. But then there is the being alone and just making the art—getting into the subconscious and the magick all that it entails—and just making some shit that did not exist before, and being like, whoa. That’s the organic figs and the full-fat, creamy cheese.
II. A BRIEF CHRONOLOGY
BLVR: Last summer I got very strict with my diet and adopted this philosophy that if I was only eating clean food (mostly just fruits and vegetables and water) that the editing on a novel I was working on would have a clarity, a brightness, a control factor that wasn’t there before (messy food = messy brain). I think it worked, but my mom called me and asked if I had an eating disorder. She was very concerned. I’m about 6’2 and weighed 142lbs. The concern was similar to her concern about my mind and my books (family weirdo). Has either of your parents been worried about your eating habits or what you write?
MB: Whoa, 6’2 at 142 is very skinny. Did the experiment work? Was there pleasure in it?
Here’s a brief chronology of my relationship with food and my parents’ relationship to my relationship with food:
Birth: Born three weeks late (didn’t want to leave womb) in a higher weight bracket than my height bracket. Mother terrified I am going to be fat (her parents were both obese, though she herself is of “normal” weight).
Age 0ish: Mother tries to breastfeed me for ~3 days but says I was ‘killing her’ so switched to formula.
Age 0—10ish: Still in higher weight bracket than height bracket AND I fucking love to eat. Mother restricts and controls all morsels I put in my mouth when in her presence. Threatens to ask teachers and camp counselors what I am eating. Asks if I “want to be a chubby or do I want boys to like me?” Does not allow cake at birthday parties. I attend Hebrew school, but the religion of the household is food. I pick my nose and eat it. I begin sneaking food. Father aids in the sneaking of food. Takes me to park as a toddler and sneaks me my first giant cookie. A Canadian goose steals it out of my hand. Takes my sister and me on trips without my mother and packs the backseat of the car full of junk food. My Grandmom Eve (Father’s mother) takes us for weekends and feeds us all weekend: mini bagels, pigs in a blanket, candy cigarettes, liquorice pipes. I steal food from other kids’ lunches, then try to trade them their own food for more food. One night I vomit in my sleep and my mother is extremely nurturing. Another time I watch my mother vomit out the door of a car and my father is extremely nurturing to her. I associate vomit with nurturing.
Age 11—13ish: Adolescent as a motherfucker. I begin to be left home alone and start binge-eating regularly. One favorite is a Lender’s bagel with mayonnaise or cream cheese and then cheese melted on top. I steal change from my mother’s “library fund” (she is an inner city school librarian) and use it to order pizzas and hoagies. I buy candy at the gas station near school: Milky Way, Three Musketeers, Twizzlers, Heath Bars. I hoard the wrappers, then I try to flush them down the toilet. They clog the toilet and I am discovered. My boobs don’t come in. My period doesn’t come. I am getting chubby. My crushes don’t like me back. Girls are mean to me. I am terrified of fires. I plan an escape route for my family. I am terrified of the Holocaust.
Age 14—15: I go away for the summer to a co-ed camp (up until this point I attended all-girls school and a camp where boys were across the lake). I restrict my food intake. I grow three inches. I get a tan. A 16-year-old says I am beautiful. A lot of boys have crushes on me. I date like five of them in a row. My parents come for visiting day and my mother freaks out with joy. I get my period. I get my boobs. Boys continue to like me. They come and go. I alternate between restricting and bingeing heavily.
Age 16—17: I get into a car accident with my father’s car and break my arm. I begin heavily restricting my food intake. I get the boyfriend of my dreams. Over time, I become severely anorexic. I am 5’5” and weigh 101 pounds. I stop getting my period. I am freezing. I grow fur. My father feels he can’t say anything. My teachers are concerned. My mother thinks I am fine until I tell her I have stopped getting my period. This scares her (she wants grandchildren someday). She sends me to a nutritionist and a therapist. It doesn’t really work. I only eat packaged foods so that I know the caloric content. I begin adding calories and slowly recover physically.
Age 18—25: I go to college. I am still very underweight. I discover weed and booze. I get stoned all day, every day. I am drunk a lot. I begin bingeing and can’t stop. I gain 50 pounds. I get really into psychedelics. When I’m on psychedelics, the pain I have caused myself over food seems shocking and fucked up. I date like 80 people. I have sex with a bunch more. My mother says I look fat. I begin taking amphetamines daily. Ecstasy also helps a lot. I run and work out a lot on ecstasy. I get into laxatives. My weight “regulates.” I move to San Francisco. I have to stop smoking weed, because it begins giving me panic attacks. I am incredibly lonely. I am now drinking every day, anywhere from a pint of 180-proof vodka at home to ~18 drinks at a bar. I like whiskey too. Amphetamine use continues. Prescription benzos begin. They don’t mix well with alcohol. I am blacking out and passing out all over San Francisco. My legs are covered in bruises from my blood being so thin from vodka. I fall down the stairs at Thanksgiving. My liver begins shutting down. I move to New York. I discover opiates. The combination of opiates and alcohol renders me in a state of practically permanent blackout. I love it. It’s what I’ve always wanted. If I could stay in this state forever I would. I can’t stay in this state forever.
Age 25: I get sober. I stay sober and I am still sober. I don’t do it alone. I love it.
Age 25—29: My eating is the most healthy and amazing it has ever been. I wouldn’t say that I don’t think about food, but I think about it way less. I maintain a healthy weight.
Age 29—Present: Food issues resurface—not to the degree of when I was young, but they are like “hey what’s up we got you bb!” I kind of don’t care.
Present—Future: To be continued…
As for poetry, my parents aren’t supposed to read my poems but my dad procures the books and reads them, which is the cutest. Like, he’ll email me a blurry pic of his foot next to a book and be like “look what I haaaaaave.” Mostly he says he doesn’t understand the poems, so it’s fine. Except for SCARECRONE. He’s not allowed to read SCARECRONE. Too filthy.
My mom has read, like, one poem, and it was about me not wanting to reproduce. She really wants me to reproduce, so she hasn’t delved in again. She mostly asks me about book sales. She tries to quantify the act of making art, somehow, to get her head around it. They both think I am weird.
III. THE ILLUSION OF CONTROL
BLVR: Eating light and really clean food (I think I was 148 lbs, not 142, at the height of this experiment) made me feel better than I ever have before and made everyone around me worried. I think my body really reacts to every little thing I put into it, like at a hyper level, and the control thing comes into play big time. Your age breakdown with food and parents is fascinating in that it’s really all about control, right? How it’s passed down from generation to generation (your mom wanting you to have a baby is about control not only with you, but a possible next generation) and how with food we try to control this world of shit and chaos. But the writing, your poems, this new book, is like the ultimate way to create controlled magic. Not sure I have a question here. Are you chewing Nicotine gum right now?
MB: Structured magick is where I want to live forever. I’m totally chewing right now. Current mood is Habitrol mint 2 mg via eBay. It’s creamier than the coated Nicorette and generic nicotine gums with a subtler body. I give it 4 out of 5 stars.
I am curious as to what you weigh now, what you ate yesterday and if you mourn the loss of that control. When I lose my illusions of control I mourn hard, though it can also feel like a beautiful return to self. I mean, you can know, intellectually, that control is an illusion. You can know it experientially and spiritually, even, through peak experiences or gentle experiences or love or sudden pain or tragedy. But asking the mind to give it up and the mind actually obeying is another animal.
BLVR: I haven’t weighed myself in a long time. I imagine I’m somewhere around 155-160. My problem is that if I try and gain weight it all goes to my face and stomach which gives me a kind of Tim-Burton-character look, I think. Yesterday I ate: half a mini-watermelon, Lara bar, ramen noodles, bowl of granola, roasted cauliflower, naan, hummus, one chicken breast, Reeses peanut butter Klondike bar, some kind of baked green peas that are like salty chips but give an illusion of health (they’re called Inner Peas, from Trader Joe’s).
Is there anything you won’t eat?
MB: You and that ramen! I saw your ramen/Lara Bar hybrid tweet about two dollar dinner and thought “he’s down with the Lara bars, that’s cool.” I don’t run with the Lara bars, because they don’t really fill me up and I like to maximize my calories (except for candy).
Here are some of my favorite foods: gigantic chocolate chip cookies the size of my head, spaghetti and meatballs, pickles, brie, pad Thai and Thai curries, greasy Chinese food, tuna melts, cheese fries, pick ‘n’ mix candies from the bins where you craft your own assortment of gummies, liquorices and chocolates in a paper bag, Duncan Hines yellow cake with chocolate icing, anything “birthday cake”-flavored.
Of these foods I eat modified versions. Like, I would never get Pad Thai or a tuna melt from a restaurant. That is like the land of zero control. But I will eat a frozen pad Thai that displays the caloric content. Or I will make my own tuna melt.
BLVR: I love a gigantic chocolate chip cookie—especially when they are so large the middle is all soft and gooey, like the oven couldn’t even touch it. And when I was a little kid (probably, like, eleven or twelve years old) I always made myself spaghetti and meatballs late at night. I was kind of weird. It would be like 10pm and I’d be boiling water, heating up frozen meatballs in the red sauce.
Could you offer a suggestion for readers of SCARECRONE: a pairing of your favorite poem and something to eat while reading it?
MB: Ian Aleksander Adams did this gif of a SCARECRONE poem and I think it’s really cool.
Eat it with air.
Shane Jones lives in Albany, New York.
See more from this series.